Grand Rapids — It’s really something to see Dominic Biolchini in action.
The Kent Hills Elementary teacher manages to direct his sometimes-chaotic fourth-grade classroom with the air of a conductor, using big hand gestures and a resonant voice to keep students on task.
When things get tricky, he has a failsafe to get students’ attention.
“I know I can,” he intones, “be what I wanna be.
“If I work hard enough,” he continues, “I’ll be where I wanna be.”
The students focus up and recite each line back to him in kind of a boot-camp chant, and the symphony that is Biolchini’s classroom stays on beat.
The refrain is from the song “I Can” by the rapper Nas. The call-and-response device has become a staple of his classroom.
“I tried it on a whim in my first year of teaching and the kids responded and always liked it, so I used it every year,” Biolchini said. “The song is awesome and the message is powerful.”
‘Every single one of us ‘adults’ can learn from kids in a diverse classroom. We should pour our greatest efforts into them.’— Kent Hills Elementary teacher Dominic Biolchini
The song is one of many unconventional methods that set Biolchini apart, and the Grand Rapids Public Schools community is taking notice. He was one of three teachers to receive the Jean Hamilton Cope Teacher of the Year award during the fall. In a release about the award, GRPS called Biolchini a “champion of inclusivity,” and touted his work establishing a bird-watching program with John Ball Zoo.
The sixth-year teacher is originally from Oxford, Michigan, where he graduated in 2014. He earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a K-8 teaching certificate from Grand Valley State University before obtaining a master’s in teaching and curriculum from Michigan State University.
He said he implements “intensive supports” for students to build “positive and loving” relationships while striving to meet his rigorous classroom expectations.
“I check in with each student individually constantly,” Biolchini said. “I offer flexible seating, we take brain breaks every 40-50 minutes. We track all of our work in a portfolio binder from the first week of school.”
He also uses a calming corner, morning and afternoon student circles, and frequent discussions of students’ future aspirations and how to achieve them.
Biolchini’s fourth-graders, like Karah Coulter and Ka’marier Roby, appreciate his approach to education.
“He’s the best teacher,” said Karah. “He just helps us learn a lot, and he lets us get brain breaks so we can help our brains work and stuff.”
“He lets us do things that are fun,” Ka’marier said. “After the first recess he lets us get a snack, and he lets us have Fun Fridays on the computer.”
“I like his class because he’s fun,” said Kaleah Jackson in the midst of a recent Fun Friday activity, during which students made telephones out of paper cups and string.
‘The Energy of Youth’
Biolchini decided to pursue a teaching career partly because his grandparents were both “prolific” public school teachers with Warren Public Schools, now Warren Consolidated Schools.
“I also love the energy of youth,” he said, adding that the relationships he’s built with students are the best part of his job. “We have fun every single day.”
The fun and fulfillment comes with a price, though.
“I don’t think people really understand how much time and effort goes into just one school day with 25 students,” Biolchini said. “I strive to meet the challenge by sacrificing a tremendous amount of my personal time to be better prepared.
“But, in the end, it is rewarding to see students’ growth. It is the best feeling. … Every single one of us ‘adults’ can learn from kids in a diverse classroom. We should pour our greatest efforts into them.”
Biolchini was nominated for the Jean Hamilton Cope award by Kent Hills Principal Chad Nielsen.
“He is a leader among our staff here at Kent Hills and works tirelessly to create engaging learning opportunities for his students,” Nielsen said. “Dominic goes above and beyond to build positive relationships with all of his scholars. … I could not think of any teacher more deserving to receive the honor of teacher of the year.”
As a recipient of the Cope award, Biolchini will be one of GRPS’ nominees for the Michigan Teacher of the Year program.
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